HARET HREIK, Lebanon: Monday marks the passing of one year since the death of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the influential and controversial Shiite scholar who managed to make enemies across the spectrum.
Angry Westerners blamed him for acts of “terror,” Islamic traditionalists blamed him for unwanted “innovation,” and militant groups like Hezbollah blamed him for not accepting the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih, or theocratic rule.
Fadlallah was a marja’ al-taqlid, or leading Shiite spiritual authority whose beliefs and practice were worthy of emulation by the faithful. In mainstream Shiism, a marja’ appears when a sufficient number of people identify themselves as followers of a given preacher, and these followers are supposed to shift their allegiance elsewhere following the passing of a marja’.
The late Fadlallah opposed this view, however, and held that deceased religious leaders were suitable for emulation – so far, a sizeable number of followers, who are spread across the world, continue to consider his thought and practice the center of their religious life.
In an interview with The Daily Star, the late scholar’s eldest son, Sayyed Ali Fadlallah, described how he has carried on his father’s legacy, not as a marja’, but as the heir of something as critically important as religious views, namely enduring institutions.
Fadlallah, 51, oversees a network of institutes, schools, hospitals and other bodies (under the rubric of the Mabarrat Charity Association), as well as institutions specialized in religious matters, such as the Islamic Law Institute.
The number of Mabarrat institutions has remained stable, and the network has added a huge sports facility in the suburbs, where Monday’s commemoration will be held, and a satellite television station (al-Iman), now in testing mode, to its array of institutions and activities.
Located in the southern suburb neighborhood of Bir al-Abed, the Office of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah coordinates correspondence and contacts with followers throughout the world, in line with the late scholar’s reach into Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.
Before sitting with the press, Sayyed Ali Fadlallah received a group of his father’s adherents who were in town from Saudi Arabia and wanted to pass on their greetings and pose questions.
Fadlallah’s office, located in a complex that has been fully rebuilt since the July 2006 war, responds to queries about personal matters and more general issues; as Sayyed Ali Fadlallah has yet to issue any fatwas, the office interprets his father’s voluminous jurisprudential production and answers accordingly.
The late Najaf-trained preacher was famous for his enlightened stances on items ranging from calculating the beginning of Ramadan, by supporting the use of purely astronomical formulas, to the rite of self-mutilation in Ashoura, by encouraging the donation of blood instead of cutting of one’s forehead.
Asked if the purely scientific calculation of the new moon was catching on in the Islamic world, Fadlallah said “he opened the door to this method – perhaps it’s not spreading as quickly as hoped, but some people are considering the use of telescopes to do this in, for example, Iran, while the European Council for Fatwa and Research adopted this method,” noting that the trend Muslims who are not necessarily emulators of the late scholar, or even Shiites.
Fadlallah cited his father’s thinking when asked about one the many items of contemporary controversy, namely stem cell research.
“We have no problems with such types of research, just as cloning was endorsed by Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah,” he said.
“This is provided that is no negative impact; however, it’s basically just like the cloning issue.”
But the recent drive to pass a law criminalizing domestic violence in Lebanon evoked a more cautious view, compared to the controversial fatwa issued by the late preacher, allowing women to defend themselves against violence by their husbands.
Fadlallah said he supported a re-think of the legislation, while not railing against it for violating Islamic law, as have Lebanon’s Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority, and the Higher Shiite Council.
“Such things aren’t to be rejected in their entirety, but the legislation shouldn’t affect the family; we don’t want to see it have certain social repercussions,” he said, likely referring to the prospect of seeing male family heads imprisoned in a society where patriarchy is often king.
“We shouldn’t just protect women; we need to protect children, and men, and all people,” said Fadlallah, who has met with the organizations behind the campaign. “We support [the effort to reduce domestic violence] in principle, but it needs further study.”
Like his father, Fadlallah criticizes the country’s sectarian political system, but rather than supporting any grassroots campaign to “topple” it, he encourages the less-confrontational path of dialogue. Whether the issue is political sectarianism, or the more specific call to amend the 1989 Taif Accord, Fadlallah is realistic. Little is likely to change with a “dialogue of the deaf” dominating the political scene.
“We certainly support moving to a non-sectarian system, but the Lebanese still haven’t decided to have a normal country … the sects remain countries in themselves.”
Asked about his stance on the Taif Accord, Fadlallah said “this agreement was for solving a problem, but it should change over time, when new requirements emerge. As for sectarianism, Taif unfortunately turned custom into law.”
The younger Fadlallah, who has taken over his father’s Friday sermon duties at the Imam Hassanein mosque, has focused attention on promoting dialogue, particularly on the Sunni-Shiite front; his father would likely have been unable to visit Tripoli, as Sayyed Ali Fadlallah did recently, in a bid to reduce the tension on the street by engaging in dialogue.
The outbreak of violence in Tripoli last month between rival Sunni and Alawi neighborhoods, while not strictly a case of Sunni-Shiite tension, was nevertheless categorized as such, but Fadlallah said the recent events didn’t represent a dramatically new phase.
“It won’t widen the division that much, because it already exists,” he said. “But the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites isn’t a big one, and the [reconciliation] efforts haven’t ended.”
Lebanon’s general climate of domestic political tension, he reiterated, worked against seeing a process of political dialogue that produces dramatic results.
“We’re trying to bring some rationality to the discourse,” he sighed.
Fadlallah’s stances on a number of leading issues place him squarely in the March 8 camp; he has spoken out against crackdowns against protestors and opposition figures in Bahrain, but not in Syria.
“People have the right to live in a country with justice, wherever this is. Just because we talked about Bahrain, doesn’t mean we forget about Libya, Egypt, Syria, where we support reform,” he said.
On the political turmoil that has erupted in the Arab world during 2011, Fadlallah said while people had legitimate demands for less repressive regimes, outside elements were playing a role in the unrest. Meanwhile, the alternatives might not amount to significant change, and foreign meddling might succeed in diverting the uprisings from their legitimate goals.
“The average person says, ‘I’m suffering,’ but the question is: How do I exit this situation, without being exploited [by enemies of change]?”
But Fadlallah said that his father would have been very happy with the Arab uprisings.
“He always supported the idea that people contain their own elements of strength, and called on them to use them. He would have been very happy in such a climate, but also anxious about those trying to hijack the accomplishments.”
By this logic, Fadlallah said, Israel should be seen as fearful of the revolts, “because whatever this change has been, it has taken people out of their situation of psychological defeat, and given them the feeling that they can change things.”
“Israel has always been afraid of the peoples [surrounding it], because the [Arab] regimes were established thanks to decisions [by the outside world], and many employees of foreign intelligence.”
In carrying on his father’s political path, Fadlallah noted that attacks by unnamed rivals of the cleric’s marja’ status had yet to cease, despite his death.
The late Fadlallah, who rejected the concept of wilayat al-faqih for matters of state, was criticized and abused mercilessly within Shiite circles in the 1990s, but the campaigns became muted in 2005, when the post-Rafik Hariri climate of tension required the sect to close ranks.
Western circles dubbed Fadlallah the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah, although he was more a godfather of the spirit of resistance to Israel, since he did not accept the central Hezbollah doctrine of wilayat al-faqih.
The Shiite attacks on Fadlallah resumed after his death, as his followers were pressured to abandon him and select another marja’ al-taqlid.
“The campaign against him was fiercer in the past, though,” Fadlallah said. “They who worked against him in the past will continue to do so today. He wasn’t a traditional [religious scholar], so it’s natural for him to be confronted by traditional types.”
“Today, they don’t want his marja’iyya to continue. They feared his positions on certain matters, and his reach [throughout the Shiite world]. But he was strong enough for his school of thought to continue.”
Fadlallah said that based on the number of queries on religious matters received by the office, “we receive about 80 percent of the former volume.”
This, he said, proved that the campaign to lure Fadlallah’s emulators to other figures had largely failed, and that people continued to seek out the late cleric’s views on the issues of the day.
“He’s still present; it’s a cliche to say that, but he is actually present, because of the methods he employed.”
Neither Sayyed Ali Fadlallah nor anyone else has stepped forward to claim his father’s status as a religious authority, but the younger man’s role is central, as a supervisor of the many institutions established by the cleric, and a collector of donations from the faithful to the Fadlallah legacy.
This legacy is one of using reason to rule on religious matters, and promoting activism in social issues, through the creation of sustainable institutions – for religious scholarship, education, health care, aiding orphans and the disabled – that recall one of the late cleric’s favorite admonitions to the faithful: “take responsibility and act.”